This is one of those books that everyone smiles about when it comes up in conversation. Everyone has a fond opinion of it. Everyone thinks they know somebody that one of the characters is based on. (F’rinstance, David Langlois gave me a copy and insisted that one of the characters was based on our mutual friend Lensman. Lensman denies this.) Allegedly this is a book that is handed out to first-time SF Con guests to prep them for the weirdness of the fen. It won an Edgar Allen Poe award. It has everything in the world going for it.
PLAY BY PLAY
Dr. Jay O. Mega wrote an SF novel about a space mission that is endangered when an unknown form of radiation reduces the IQ of the female members of the crew. The publisher slapped a softcore T&A cover on the book and re-titled it “Bimbos of the Death Sun.” Properly embarrassed, but also kinda’ unable to shuck off the money, he heads to an SF convention as a guest, along with his feminist girlfriend.
We’re treated to a lot of scenes of conventioneers weirdness, though this is oddly obsessed with the Fantasy RPG aspects of fendom, and strangely empty of aliens, space ships, robots, comic book superheroes, Star Trek, people dressed up as characters from TV shows, fat sweaty chicks in spandex running around playing vampire, and pretty much everything else you’d expect to see at a *science fiction* convention. But whatever. The plot meanders for quite a bit, jumping back and forth between Mega, the convention organizers, a folk musician who happened coincidentally to be staying at the hotel that weekend, a very unsympathetic fat chick who seduced skinny virginal geek boys to pay her way through life, and a guy named Dungannon, who is loosely based on Harlan Ellison, I think.
Eventually Dungannon turns up murdered, and we wander through a not-terribly-focused detective mystery for about half the book, until Mega tricks the murderer into revealing his crime publicly during a live-action D&D game.
The book is not without its charms, it was a pleasant enough read, but I have to confess it never really grabbed me. The mystery is fairly obvious, fairly perfunctory, and the book itself never seems entirely interested in the plot. It lazes about for nearly half the novel before the murder takes place, and then doesn’t seem terribly committed to the sleuthing afterwards. The real selling point here is the atmosphere, the faux-exoticism of conventions, Fen, and FIAWOL stuff in general. The whodunit aspects almost feel like an afterthought to tie the whole megilla together. This is not a bad thing, of course: using a mystery as a way of propelling the reader through a story that is not a mystery is an old plot device. It’s used in movies, too, probably the best example being Robert Altman’s only truly great movie, “The Player.”
I’m old enough - just barely - to remember conventions more-or-less the way they’re depicted here, before they became entirely media-tied, all about this or that movie, before that unfortunate period in the 90s when all SF cons became Star Trek cons, before our unfortunate modern time when all conventions try (And mostly fail) to be reflections of Comicon. I definitely got a nostalgic buzz out of the very ‘my friends and I threw this together’ barnstorming nature of the old days. I really dug all the fanzine stuff, and not just because I ran a fanzine of my own for several years (Arguably I still do. It’s called “Republibot.com”). I loved the aspergery nature of the ‘Zines themselves, self-obsessed unto the point of inscrutability. I groaned knowingly at the wannabe authors continually trying to buttonhole people into reading their thousand-page manuscripts about…I dunno…nothing anyone would ever want to read, really.
I could almost *smell* the Computer Room, the dust, ozone, and machine oil from the floppy disk drives, the slight high-frequency whine of the old CRTs that dogs and I could hear, but no one else seemed to mind. Those old green-screens, wow! People talking about BBSes! Remember BBSes? I always wanted a BBS, though, of course, I never managed to pull that one off (Although again, arguably: Republibot.com). Definitely there was a day-trip-to-my-junior-year-in-College aspect to the book, and I was buzzing about that.
On the other hand, it wasn’t a very Science Fictiony convention, you know? Lots of D&D and Tolkeinesque stuff, but where are the people playing “Traveler” and “Rifts” and “Paranoia” and “Gamma World” and all the other games that, frankly, were much more fun than D&D (Well, ok, Gamma World wasn’t). Where’s all the folks playing “Starflight” and “Elite,” and “Space Quest II: Vohaul’s Revenge?” or thinly-veiled fictional equivalents thereof? Where’s the media rooms showing “Alphaville” and “Blade Runner” and old Space: 1999 episodes?
I guess what I find oddest about this book is that it claims to be about a murder mystery set at an SF convention, but in fact, for all intents and purposes, it’s at a *Fantasy* convention, and, as I’ve said, it’s not all that interested in the mystery. Actually, one could argue it’s a D&D convention, to be honest. So there you have it. It’s not bait-and-switch, it’s just kind of bait, lose focus, and end up talking about something else.
I said earlier that Appin Dungannon is Ellisonesque. That’s not entirely true. Firstly, I’m friends with Harlan, and I can tell you in no uncertain terms that he’s not the dick Dugannon is portrayed as being here. Secondly, he’s Harlan Freakin’ Ellison, he’s not a hack by any stretch of the imagination, whereas Dungannon is essentially a one-trick pony who hates the trick, hates his fans, and despite his egotistical monomania, kind of hates himself as well. I do definitely feel - as does everyone I know who’s read the book - that much of Dungannon’s behavior is based on perceptions of Ellison’s public persona, but in fact Harlan is a dream guest on the convention circuit. True: he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and he’s not at all shy about expressing that, but there is no one, no one, no one who is more dedicated to his fans, more dedicated to the genre, more dedicated to helping outsiders break into the writing game than him. So it bothers me to see people read this book, and go, “Oh, that’s Harlan,“ but to be fair I think Dungannon is really intended as a pastiche of every nightmare guest rolled into one.
It still bugs me, though, and he seems a little cardboard, a little thin in the characterization. The moment he shows up, you know he’s just waiting for a bullet, and his personality is entirely there so we’ll feel there’s no great loss to distract us from the semi-comedic goings on.
Mega never really emerged as a fully-fledged character to me, though, again, the book is intended as something like a screwball comedy of manners, so that’s not the problem here it’d be elsewhere. He’s good enough. His girlfriend is supposed to function as a kind of ‘native guide’ though the convention subculture, but she wears her feminism on her sleeve, which is kind of distractingly annoying.
Understand, dear reader, that I’m actually something of a feminist myself. I’m all about equal pay for equal work, I’m opposed to the glass ceiling, I don’t think women should be confined to subordinate and/or caregiving roles. I’m all about the equality. Pretty much the only feminist agenda item I oppose is Abortion. Even so, I found the girlfriend rather self-righteous and annoying. I think perhaps this might simply be an aspect of the book that was of-the-minute when it was written, but hasn’t aged well. On this side of the 20th century, after the Riot Grrrrrrls and the sexually aggressive Lipstick Feminism of the 90s/early 00s, this kind of card-carrying Second Wave Feminism seems rather…well, let’s be polite and call it ‘quaint.’
I suspect the fat lazy chick who seduces geek boys so she doesn’t have to get a job is probably intended as a counterpoint to this. It’s a surprisingly negative stereotype for a book that seems, on the whole, to like its characters.
Finally: One thing I found really odd was the emphasis on ‘realism’ in the D&D aspects of the book. Maybe it’s just growing up in Nebraska in the ‘80s, but no one I knew who played D&D - and brother, I knew a lot of people who were completely obsessive about it - gave a crap about realism. There was none of this attempt to depict Celtic culture in a historically accurate fashion, no renaissance festival aspects, no “This is the ruins of an old Roman mile castle“ stuff. Everyone I knew more-or-less assumed the game took place in a fictional never-never land, and any similarity to the real medieval world was entirely coincidental. It’s strange to me that everyone in this book is trying to plausibly shoehorn their adventures into actual historical circumstance.
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?
Yeah, I think so, mostly. It’s a good book, not brilliant. It reads well and briskly. It’s moderately funny, though, again, some of the humor hasn’t aged well. It’s an adequate lite-mystery, suitable for people who like a bit of detective work, but maybe aren’t up to the full-on Chandler/Hammet thing. There’s absolutely nothing bad in the book. I myself am interested in it enough to eventually read the kinda’ sorta’ maybe sequel, “Zombies of the Gene Pool”
To be honest, this is one of those rare books that I think Social Conservatives will like better than us regular Conservatives, though they’d probably see it as a cautionary tale to keep their kids from going off the rez, as it were.